Two days before high school graduation, I was in the school cafeteria looking over my cap and gown with the rest of the Senior class. My friend, Jason, was talking about what he planned to do after walking. I remember kind of muttering something, and trying to swallow back the lump coming up in my throat.
I knew I could pass off the tears as being sad about leaving high school behind, but the irony was that I had started to cry because I was afraid I wasn’t going to get to leave at all.
For the most part, I was a good kid. I didn’t drink, or do drugs, or run around—that’s old fogey speak for “slut it up”—and while I was absolutely a normal teenager, I wasn’t too disrespectful of my parents, or my teachers. That is, I wasn’t disrespectful of my teachers when I decided to show up to school.
Three days before graduation, I’d been invited to the attendance office to discuss the fact that I had missed more than a third of my school year. I’d already done In School Suspension that Fall, for getting caught forging my mother’s signature on a tardy notice, so it was hardly a surprise that I had an issue.
I had been smart enough not to miss full days, though, and devious enough to have pocketed a signed pad of excuse notes my orthodontist had left out on his practice counter, expecting his patients to use the honor system in taking only one at a time. You’d think someone would have noticed that my braces had gone missing in January, and I was still going to see the orthodontist in May.
That same day, I had been invited to the Counselor’s office because I had failed Algebra II by two points. That was the class I skipped most often, and while I had solid Bs on the tests, I never turned in homework. I had factored the extremely low homework grade against my quiz and test scores, and figured that I would be fine. I made an A on my final, so I should have just skimmed on out of the class. What I did not factor in was the grade for attendance. That was probably covered on a day I hadn’t bothered to show up.
So, I stood there in the cafeteria, brimming tears because the school administration was meeting to discuss whether, or not to excuse my attendance record, and the math teacher was deciding whether, or not to let me eek out of her class.
By the end of that day, I was wreck. I still had to go home and tell my parents. I had to go home and tell my grandparents, who had driven from Georgia to attend my graduation. All kinds of things ran through my head, including extreme solutions that would mean never having to tell anyone anything at all. I was afraid to disappoint everyone. Angry at myself for having gotten caught—not for having skipped school, or not done my homework, mind you*.
Before I went home, the Counselor called me in again. She told me I was going to be allowed to take a comprehensive exam to test out of Algebra II. I had to score an 80 on the full year’s worth of material, but if I could do that, the teacher was willing to pass me. As for the attendance issues…well, that had not yet been decided. The exam would be administered the morning of graduation, so I had to cool my jets (and study) until then.
I also had to go through the Senior Walk, the Senior Talent Show, and Senior Skip Day pretending I was just as happy as every other kid to be graduating, and was only upset at the prospect of missing my friends. I didn’t tell any of them. I was too embarrassed. I was supposed to be one of the smart kids, one of the good kids, not one of the questionable ones.
I don’t even remember telling my family. What I do remember is my grandfather putting a hand on my shoulder as I left the house to take the exam the next morning. He said, “It’s not the end of the world,” and he sent me on my way.
I passed the exam with plenty of time to spare, but couldn’t get a straight answer about whether, or not the attendance issue was going to be excused. The Counselor told me the administration was having a really hard time reaching a decision because while my absences were grossly excessive, my grades were fine. Some of my grades were even excellent.
She told me to show up for the graduation ceremony, and they’d let me know then if I could walk.
Me? I was just holding out hope that they were only punishing me with psychological torment, and wouldn’t really be cruel enough to make me show up in my graduation duds, only to be turned away at the gate.
I don’t remember ever getting a straight answer. I did run into the math teacher who said, “Are you a Senior? If I’d known that, I’d have just passed you!” She told me she’d thought I was a sophomore. I mean, I was short…
So, while I kept trying to ask adults if I could graduate, without letting my friends know I might not be graduating, I was ushered into line, and marched off across the football field, where I sat in a daze, watching gnats circle the tassel button on the mortarboard of the girl in front of me. My name was called. I collected my handshake, and diploma place-holder, and walked back to my seat hoping it was for real.
I wasn’t sure it really was for real until I passed my first semester at college. I still have nightmares that my undergraduate degree is predicated on an administrative error, and I have to go back to high school, and redo all of college.
All that to say, “Congratulations, Graduates!” May your days be happy, and may you have a better graduation story than mine. (And also, if you don’t get to graduate with your class, or if you have a terrible few days like I did, know that in 10 years—even in a single year—it won’t matter at all. It will be a blip on your radar. You’ll be okay. You don’t need to consider the extremes. And you should feel free to email me if you need someone to say that to you personally.)
*Truth be told, I’d probably do it all over again, but this time I would do enough homework to pad my grade. My thought was that if I could do well enough on a test to prove I knew the material, I shouldn’t have to do the freaking homework. I still feel that way. I’m lazy. I’d rather have a B with no busywork, than an A with lots of extra practice. Or, maybe not lazy, but busy. I have a lot of things to do! I’d rather have a B and get it all done, than an A and only get into half of what interests me.